Organic Consumers Association

Fields Of Battle: The role of Agriculture in the Elections

Fields Of Battle

John Feffer is the author of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003), and the editor of Power Trip: U.S. Unilateralism and Global Strategy after September 11.

On the strength of two wars and a barrage of patriotic propaganda, George Bush once looked invulnerable on foreign policy issues. Today, as stability eludes Iraq and Afghanistan and crisis continues to dog the Korean peninsula, the world seems less willing to go along with the president's reelection plans. And on the horizon looms a bread-and-butter issue of foreign policy that may prove even more vexing for the administration and politically advantageous for the Democrats: the global politics of agriculture. Start sweating, George.

On food issues, the Bush administration has managed to turn just about everyone's stomach. In May, the administration dragged the European Union before the World Trade Organization over its more cautious approach to genetically modified food, thus further poisoning transatlantic relations. In September, the administration's reluctance to put agricultural subsidies on the chopping block—coupled with similar resistance from the EU—prompted an influential bloc of developing countries to walk out of trade negotiations in Cancun. Since genetic engineering and government handouts have been justified in terms of saving the American farm, you might think that U.S. farmers line up with the administration on these issues. Guess again, city slicker.

The majority of farmers in the United States find themselves in the same predicament as farmers in the developing world. They're earning less, trying to produce more, and digging themselves into an ever deeper pit of debt and dependency. Whether in Dakar or Des Moines, these farmers are all pointing fingers at Washington. Going into the 2004 elections, the Bush administration faces a major food crisis, precipitated by a catastrophic drop in prices for basic commodities. In the last seven years, the prices of primary export crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, cotton and rice have plummeted 40 percent. To the average U.S. consumer, this drop in prices might not seem so bad. Cheap food, after all, has always been a crowd pleaser.

The problem is, consumers don't see all the costs on their grocery bills. Safeway and Giant don't charge extra for exhausted soil, don't slap on a surcharge for aquifers poisoned by over-farming and don't pass on the medical costs incurred by farmers suffering the effects of heavy pesticide and fertilizer use. Nor do consumers see that low prices enable large U.S. producers to dump their products overseas, undercutting the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of farmers around the world. The costs to family farms in the United States are equally devastating. The 90 percent of farmers who gross less than $250,000 a year can barely scratch out a living, since their profit margins narrow to near invisibility after the costs of all inputs are factored in. Washington's solution to this crisis has only made the problem worse. First in the 1996 farm bill and then more so with the 2002 sequel, Democrats and Republicans have supported a set of subsidies that are spectacularly unpopular with almost everyone—European competitors, farmers in the developing world, the tillers of Iowa and the milkers of Vermont, and even the average taxpayer.

Since 1996, direct government payments to farmers have tripled in order to compensate for the dramatic drop in commodity prices. But even these payments go disproportionately to agribusiness and don't help family farmers out of their fix. Genetic engineers, with their visions of bumper crops of easy-to-ship tomatoes and pest-resistant soy beans, will only add to the problem. The challenge is not underproduction but the massive overproduction of food in the United States, Europe and elsewhere that is driving down prices and flooding the developing world. The Bush administration has handed the Democrats the perfect electoral weapon, a way to combine public concerns over a ham-fisted foreign policy with the perennial election-year fixation on the domestic economy.

To be sure, the Democrats share responsibility for kowtowing so shamelessly before agribusiness. But that was last season, and now the Democrats have a chance to redeem themselves. "There's a lot of dissatisfaction in the countryside about the current policies," says Hugh Espey, staff director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement. "Certain messages would resonate very well among both registered Democrats and Republicans. We see corporations working hand in hand with government out here in the countryside—to monopolize the food production system in this country. Low grain prices and weak enforcement of anti-trust laws are not partisan issues. Citizens here just want to see more being done." Leon Crump, a South Carolina vegetable farmer and beekeeper who is also the state director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, argues for a strategy that "crosses racial and economic lines," that brings white and black farmers together with consumers and taxpayers in a broad coalition for agricultural reform.

So far, the Democratic candidates have made some tentative noises on farm issues. Most support ethanol since it reduces dependence on foreign petroleum and enjoys the backing of big corn growers and the major oil companies. Most want to ban meat packers from owning livestock in order to slow corporate consolidation in agriculture—but this is not such a controversial position since a version of the packer ban nearly made it into the 2002 Farm Bill. Most have taken aim at the farm subsidies that double as corporate welfare, but only the most extreme examples of abuse—not the system itself. With the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich, the Democrats have not yet exploited the Bush team's soft white agricultural underbelly by going to the heart of the issue: how the rural economy, like the economy as a whole, is tilted heavily in favor of the wealthy.

George Naylor, a corn and soybean farmer and president of the National Family Farm Coalition, attributes this failure to the fear factor: "Every time there's an opportunity, the idiots don't take it. Everybody is so influenced by campaign contributions and pseudo farm institutions like the Soybean Growers and the Farm Bureau that they're afraid to touch agriculture." If he or she overcomes this fear, a Democratic challenger could make a lot of political hay with a plan for reversing course on farm subsidies. In the conclusion of its invaluable September 2003 report, the Agricultural Policy Analysis Center (APAC) at the University of Tennessee argues for a three-pronged approach of establishing price floors, providing incentives to retire cropland, and introducing a reserve mechanism to keep produce off the market when the prices drop too low. Such a plan would not only save the family farm but would also, according to APAC, stop the export of poverty to the developing world. More to the point, such a plan could win a lot of votes in key farm states. Listen up, Dems. On foreign policy issues, encompassing the fields of battle and the fields of grain, you can beat George Bush on both swords and ploughshares.

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